|Cardinal George Pell gives evidence to the royal commission. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA|
The Vatican used to be impermeable to horrific stories of child sexual abuse by priests – and complicit in attempts to whitewash the perpetrators’ reputations. It was a place where men such as Cardinal Bernard Law, who became a pariah within the US Catholic church after it became clear that decades of sexual abuse had been covered up within his archdiocese, could go for a comfortable retirement and to escape glaring media attention or, even worse, possible investigation.
But an unexpected confluence of extraordinary events has changed all that this week. The film Spotlight, the tale of the Boston Globe’s dogged investigation into clerical sexual abuse, won Hollywood’s most coveted prize of the Oscar for best picture.
More importantly, hours before the Oscar win was announced, one of the most senior officials within the Vatican hierarchy, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, admitted under oath for the first time that he had heard that an Australian Catholic schoolteacher may have engaged in “paedophilia activity”, but never followed up on the “one or two fleeting references” he heard about the “misbehaviour”. The teacher in question, Edward Dowlan, a Christian Brother, was later convicted of abusing 20 boys and is serving a six-year prison sentence.
Pell, in an appearance by videolink before the Australian royal commission into institutional responses to sexual child abuse that began at 10pm in Rome and ended at 2am, sounded contrite as he testified, often using short sentences. He called the church’s response to clerical sexual abuse of children by one serial offender, Gerald Ridsdale, “a catastrophe” for his victims but also for the church.
It was a topic that may have come up in an exchange Pell had with Pope Francis, hours before his second night of questioning was due to begin. The Vatican did not respond to requests about what the two discussed.
The testimony via videolink was arranged by the royal commission after Pell had said he could not travel to Australia because of a heart condition.
A Vatican official acknowledged that Pell had probably not foreseen that he would still have to testify in a public forum even though he remained in Rome: a banqueting hall in the Hotel Quirinale that included nearly 70 journalists, and 15 survivors of sexual abuse who made the journey from Australia.
The decision by Pell not to go to Australia and face intense media scrutiny there had an unintended consequence: uncomfortable questions about criminal sexual acts that do not often get a hearing in Italy – about priests kissing boys, swimming together naked, taking showers together – have been heard on the Vatican’s doorstep.
Robert Mickens, a veteran Vatican journalist, said: “This is in the pope’s yard right now, and that has never happened. Historically, yes, this is something really big.
“It was clear Pell was going to be very sullen; he had short answers and sounded repentant and ‘Gosh, I didn’t understand’. But there was an admission, finally, that he heard the rumours. Before, he was saying this was all brand new to him.”
Mickens said he believed that Pell was purposely “playing the kind of almost sorry old man who was beaten up a little bit”.
“That is a difficult act for George,” Mickens said. “Whether the commission buys it or not ... certainly here in Rome he looks like the object of a witch hunt.”
Is a witch hunt a bad thing if there really is a witch?
One of the unusual results of Pell staying in Rome to testify is that it meant that a host of vaticanisti (expert Vatican reporters) were compelled to observe and report on the hearing, although most – especially Italian journalists – have not usually covered specific stories about clerical sexual abuse.
In one of the most revealing moments of Pell’s testimony, he acknowledged that it was unusual at the time that Ridsdale, a paedophile priest whom Pell knew and lived with for about 10 months and was later revealed to be a serial rapist of children, took big groups of boys with him away on camping trips.
“To the extent I thought about it, I thought with a big group of 45 boys that would prevent wrongdoing, or it was a useful precaution,” Pell said.
When Gail Furness SC, the barrister assisting the royal commission, pressed him on that point, and asked whether “wrongdoing” was on his mind, he said: “Not particularly. I just thought it would have been imprudent to do otherwise.”
When asked again, whether it was “imprudent” because a boy who was alone on a camping trip with a priest could be abused, Pell responded: “That is certainly correct, and it was also capable of provoking gossip that might or might not be justified.”
The big question now is not only how Pell will fare under the next few days of questioning, but whether renewed focus on clerical abuse and the church’s handling of the problem will also receive more attention from the pope.
The Vatican has faced recent criticism on a number of sex abuse-related issues, including questions about its policy on reporting suspected cases – the church said it followed local laws but not all laws required such reports – and it does not appear to have made progress in establishing a special tribunal that it announced it would set up last year to investigate senior clergy who are accused of covering up abuse.
“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” Pell said. “The church has made enormous mistakes, but is working to remedy them.”
Just how hard it is working to that end is a question Pope Francis will find it hard to ignore, observers say.